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March Magic Memories: Chris Messina

Perhaps best known for proposing the use of the hashtag on Twitter as a way of grouping messages, Chris Messina also co-founded BarCamp as well as several co-working communities. A 2003 graduate of Carnegie-Mellon, his extensive tech resume includes stints as Uber and Google. Messina has spoken numerous times at SXSW — in 2017, he participated on a panel titled “Computers, We Should Talk: The Conversational Web.” For the March 2018 event, he will talk about what we the past can teach us when thinking about the future in a session that has the very Halloween-ish theme “Lessons From the Death of the PC.”

UPDATE: Due to an unexpected scheduling conflict, Chris will no longer be able to participate in SXSW 2018. We look forward to hearing his expertise at the March 2019 event in Austin!

In 20 words or less, what is the main focus of your current job?
I’m focused on how to apply high technology to the problem of self-knowledge and human connection.

When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Originally, I’d wanted to be an explorer but once that passed, I turned my attention to art and computers, and biology and natural systems. In high school, I combined the former in the study of design and the latter in exploring behavioral science.

How do those career aspirations from your younger self connect to what you are doing now?
I see a direct line from my early curiosity in the unknown to my fascination with the mysteries of modern technologies and how people use and adopt them. I still love art and comics and creativity, and bring elements of each into projects I’ve contributed to. Certainly my love of computers and design has set the trajectory of my career through my migration from the east coast to the west coast. Additionally, growing up in New Hampshire I developed a strong libertarian bent — something often reflected in the open source and decentralized technology projects I’ve worked on.

What are you most passionate about at present?
What’s most alive in me slightly changes from day to day and week to week, but where my focus hovers longest lately has been in understanding and belonging with myself more deeply than I’ve tried before. But this involves thinking deeply about: the impact of technology on people and society; what inspires our behavior and expectations; how to approach interpersonal relationships more effectively; how to live a healthier life; how to understand and serve collective consciousness; and what my needs and wants are.

In your mind, what is the most overhyped / overrated tech trend at present?
Virtual reality is struggling with widespread adoption even as Zuckerberg seems pretty enamored of it. Oculus may be Facebook’s Google Glass — not a complete boondoggle, but unlikely to be a mass market consumer success. There may be specific contexts in which VR is obviously a better way to create, connect, and understand — but we’re so far off from living in a Ready Player One world.

In your mind, what is the most underrated / overlooked tech trend at present?
We’re entering a golden age of design tools that hasn’t been covered sufficiently or put into proper context in the tech press. We’re exiting the world in which most designers adapted their Photoshop and Illustrator skills to do UI design. Now we have a flotilla of new tools specifically targeting interface experiences on high density and variable sized screens — allowing a high dynamic range of fidelities, from prototyping to highly choreographed motion interaction design. This is new — as well as designing with real data and APIs — and will bring an increasingly degree of sophistication to our everyday digital experiences.

What’s the last great book you read?
I primarily listen to books these days, but I did enjoy, semi-ironically, reading Joi Ito’s Whiplash. It’s one of those books that I’ll be able to point to as a seminal work identifying many of the trends that will define the next 20 years of technology, and how to participate in them. I also read Neil Strauss’s The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships and got a lot out of it — but that may say more about where I am in my life than anything else.

What’s the last great movie you saw?
I really loved Blade Runner 2049. It really is great update to the franchise. I also appreciated what Jared Leto said on the Recode Decode podcast about replicants… that if you think of them as his character, Niander Wallace does (i.e. as though they’re just more advanced iPhones), then it is less surprising why he treats them as disposable and why he’s seeking a kind of Jony Ive-inspired technological perfection. It was useful to listen to the podcast before seeing the film.

What band / musician you are listening to most these days?
Ever since I first went to Burning Man, I’ve really gotten into EDM and Deep House and various DJ mixes. Some of my favorite artists includes Mat Zo, sober rob, Ramsey, dvsn, PANTyRAiD, Rezz, and OBESØN.

If you weren’t living in San Francisco, where would you want to be?
Even though I grew up on the east coast, I’m definitely smitten with the west coast — particularly San Francisco and Portland, OR. I’d love to live in New York, if only for a year, and I still imagine an exploration-saturated lifestyle at some point, with extended stops in Amsterdam, Singapore, and Tokyo.

Over the last 15 years, you’ve worked at and / or been a part of some of the world’s top startups. What was your best work-related experience during this timeframe and why?
Consistently, the best part of working for top companies and startups have been interacting with and connecting with people. It’s a rare privilege to work alongside smart, driven, and hard-working people that are shaping the very technologies that in turn shape our consciousness and lived experiences. It’s less the projects and more the resonance and optimism that I’ve glimpsed when working alongside fellow travelers that’s been the most lasting benefit. I’ve also had the chance to confront myself and my own limitations, and while that’s been tough, it’s given me much more understanding and compassion for others.

As the father of the hashtag, what are your thoughts on the future of this structure? Five years from now, will we still be organizing conversations via hashtags?
2017 was the 10th anniversary of the hashtag, and it’s only become more important to discourse in the world. Going forward, I can see hashtags continuing to be as relevant and powerful as emoji and stickers — just another way to gather people around the equivalent of social media campfires (or bonfires, depending on the topic!). Five years from now, I imagine we’ll be using more visual, virtual, and immersive media formats, but there will always be a need for content to be shared, sorted, and discovered — and hashtags seem like the simplest means to enable that. Even as new media forms emerge, those forms tend to extend and build on the power of those of the past, and I don’t see a need to remove hashtags from the vernacular now that they’ve been established.

If you were given the reigns of Twitter (i.e., became CEO), what changes would you make?
I’m horrified by this question because I love Twitter and get enormous value from the platform. That said, I also know that my experience is relatively rare, and that for many people, Twitter is a cesspool. Why is my experience so much better? Should it really take a decade of personal curation to find Twitter nirvana? When I think about ways in which the platform might evolve, I think about the potential in Twitter Moments. It really has become the place to go for breaking news — gathering a multitude of both amateur and professional perspectives on what’s happening in the world. However, most of that experience feels skin deep… it’s more People Magazine than Economist… and that seems like a missed opportunity. If you could combine the hard hitting reporting of an outlet like Vice News with Twitter, you might have something really interesting and engaging. If you could address the hostility and challenges of anonymity — you might also create a more fertile ground for useful discourse, but given that it’s an open platform, it’s not an easy problem to solve. Product changes have been promised, and many have been made in recent years. I love the platform and it serves me well; the question for Twitter leadership is how to expand that value to the rest of its audience.

What is your best tip for newbie SXSW attendees?
Don’t overbook yourself! There’s a tendency of newbies to make a tight schedule of everything to see and then to try to actually see everything! Don’t! Treat SXSW as a buffet with heapings of serendipity thrown in. Go where opportunity takes you, rather than what’s in your calendar. While yes, you should have some kind of list of things you really want to see and voices you look forward to hearing from, also stay limber and flexible. The best SXSW experiences are often the ones least planned!

Over the various years that you have attended SXSW, what has been the most memorable networking event and why?
I remember one year a bunch of us in the open web community decided to head out to a lake outside of Austin for BBQ, tacos, and tequila. I feign to use the term “memorable”, but in retrospect, it still somehow holds up as one of my better social outings at SXSW! I also helped organize an event called the League of Extraordinary Hackers for Google — and we hosted a battlebot competition sponsored by LEGO and Red Bull that was totally epic.

What other events / conferences / meetings / festivals do you enjoy attending?
SXSW doesn’t really prepare you for Burning Man, but if you’re into big, elaborate events with lots of people who are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in life, then Burning Man might be a reasonable pilgrimage to make once you’ve tackled SXSW. I’ve also found many smaller and less intense festivals like Symbiosis and Lightning in a Bottle that are worthwhile and transformative. Those which celebrate decommodification are worth looking into!

Chris Messina photo at top courtesy of Esther Crawford.

Other installments of the March Magic series include interviews with Yuval Yarden, Jenny 8. Lee, Aziz Gilani and whurley.

Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.

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Hugh Forrest

Celebrating creativity at SXSW. Also, reading reading reading, the Boston Red Sox, good food, exercise when possible and sleep sleep sleep.